“Cocktail Dress”: anatomy of a revision

cocktail dress ad with red-tailed hawk and poem (photo by sabeth718 on Flickr)

“Cocktail Dress” started out as a simple exercise: a poetry postcard like one of these. I missed the contest deadline by a month and a half, but that’s O.K. It’d be a cool way to link to Read Write Poem, an online community and magazine I deeply believe in. I volunteered to help judge the contest, instead.

I was on the point of uploading the above image to yesterday’s post when I thought maybe I’d change the arrangement of lines, which the constraints of the image played hob with. But then of course the poem no longer fit on the photo. So I said O.K., I’ll just link to the photo at Flickr and post the poem — less confusing anyway for readers who have come to expect that any photo posted here will be one of mine.

So I had the post all ready to go again, and literally had my little arrow on the Publish button when I thought: you know, that ending is kinda lame. I’ve done more variations on that kind of ending than I can count; it feels stale to me. Bringing in the hawk like that — it’s completely unearned. What does a red-tailed hawk really have in common with a large advertisement for a dress, aside from the color red? Well, I suppose pigeons might escape the hawk by roosting on window ledges between the ad and the building, but I couldn’t think of a way to work that in without writing a completely new poem.

Draft #2 didn’t even make it to the finger-on-the-Publish-button stage:

My window is blocked by
an enormous vinyl
advertisement
for a red
cocktail dress.
When the sun strikes it
at 3:00 in the afternoon,
the room fills
with evening

& I raise the window
to listen
to its soft flapping
over the sound of traffic.
I think I almost prefer it
to my former view
of stark & naked buildings.
Our lives are better
for these artful lies:
underwire support, pumps,
cleavage in the street.
A red flag
always ennobles hunger,
turning you wild,
O wild thing.

I mean, nice try to work in a reference to the hawk, but… “wild thing”?! The only way I could’ve made that more trite would’ve been to steal the joke from that Michelob beer ad, “Preserve the wild life!” But I liked the stuff about the truth behind the lies of advertising. Why not try for once to make explicit some of the thinking behind my choice of images? Suggesting a sameness between life under capitalism and life under communism had a certain appeal, but many people’s primary association with “red flag” would be a football game. Did I want that? Shouldn’t I go back to spelling out what it was a flag for?

I kept zeroing in on the sound that enormous poster would make, which strikes me as the aesthetic pivot of the poem. I described the ad as “vinyl” without bothering to do any actual research on such ads, but let’s assume I’m right about that. (And let’s completely ignore the likelihood that the building on which the ad appears in the photo is not an apartment building. These sorts of details are covered by poetic license.) What sort of noise would it make, assuming it was very tightly stretched? I tried verb after verb. “Rustling” would suggest a connection with the sound of a dress against the skin, which would be great, but it didn’t seem an apt description of the sound as I imagined it. “Soft crepitations”? “Crackling”? “Pulsing?” It seemed to me that a light breeze would probably yield both creaking, stretching noises and a sort of soft thumping against the building. Maybe “soft pulsing” would do the trick. Still a somewhat erotic overtone there.

My window is blocked by
an enormous vinyl
advertisement
for a red
cocktail dress — a flag
for the country of hunger.
When the sun strikes it
at 3:00 in the afternoon,
the room fills
with evening

& I raise the window
to listen
to its soft pulsing
over the sound of traffic.
I think I almost prefer it
to my former view
of stark buildings
& filthy streets.
I’ve seen much too much
of that too little.

What lies beyond
the artful lie is barely
worth notice: stretch
marks, sagging breasts,
hair growing where
it shouldn’t. A future
feeding breadcrumbs
to pigeons.
But the red dress says
get ready for
a wild ride.

I decided that this draft was good enough to publish, though at the last minute I decided to change “sagging” to “pendulous” for the assonance with “stretch” and “breasts.”

But then, as is so often the case, saying the lines over and over convinced me that I couldn’t have another -ing word so close after “evening” — and there was no way in hell I’d dispense with the latter, making as it does such a crucial connection between the wrongness of the ad and the sultry evening wear it advertised (at least in the imaginary scene I was working from; I have no idea whether the dress in the photo was in fact a cocktail dress. I know almost nothing about women’s clothing).

At about the same time, I got an email from a reader questioning my use of the phrase “pendulous breasts.” “Don’t you think that phrase is a little overused to be used in a poem?” she asked. Well, I dunno — I guess so. But saying the lines over and over, I decided that the short-e assonance is actually a bit too much there, and that for aural reasons alone I should’ve stuck with “sagging.” So I made the change and republished.

But in my email response, I admitted, “I think I ruined that poem by trying to pack too many ideas into it. It started off as a simple one-stanza poem like yesterday’s…” Once I’d admitted that, there was no way I could leave it alone. It was time to go back to the first draft and see how far I could go in the direction of a complete absence of didacticism.

So the bottom two-thirds of the poem were toast. A cocktail dress achieves its effect through elegant abbreviation; shouldn’t the poem do the same? I guess I am still an old-school imagist at heart. If I ever got a tattoo of anything, it wouldn’t say Poet, it would say Show, Don’t Tell. (Maybe “show” on the back of the left hand and “don’t tell” on the back of the right, in a simple serif font…)

I’d known at some level from the beginning that “flag from the country of hunger” had to go: it just doesn’t feel fresh to me. Not only have I probably written that exact line before — that’s the way it feels — but a flag for an imaginary, allegorical country is almost a cliché in contemporary American poetry. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect from a Billy Collins or a James Tate — and good for them if they can make it new. I can’t.

Then I go back and look at the photo again. What about our perspective as outsiders trying to imagine (as I am doing) what lies behind the ad? The putative inhabitant now begins to seem as illicit as the dirty streets and sagging breasts had seemed to him or her in previous drafts. I remember an interview I heard on the radio last month with the New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer, author of Parasite Rex, in which he waxed poetic about the human blood fluke, which has a decades-long lifespan and remains intimately connected with its partner for the whole of that long voyage through our bloodstream. No doubt blood flukes deserve a whole poem of their own, possibly an epic. (There’s also a dalliance with snails earlier in their life-cycle.) But in the meantime, let’s at least slip in a reference. Blood is red, “fluke” is a very suggestive word… it works, I think.

But back to the central question: what’s the right way to describe that sound? Do I really need to keep the traffic-noise mention in there? Surely a long-time city resident would hardly notice such a thing, not compared to the novelty of the creaking, possibly humming sign. Then I think, what about “crackle and hum”? Immediately I realize that this is a semi-plagiarism from the title of a best-selling album by U2, Rattle and Hum. I’ve never been a fan of their music, but I love the sound those two words make together. “Crackle and hum” isn’t quite as mellifluous, but it has the great advantage — for my purposes — of suggesting an old radio, especially a shortwave radio. A-ha! The poem is really about broadcasting, isn’t it?

And that’s good enough to end on, I think. The ending of a poem should always feel like a new door or window on the world has just been thrown open. My first draft tried to do that by suggesting a relationship between dress and redtail and letting the reader ponder that, but it was too pat.

My window is blocked by
an enormous vinyl
advertisement
for a red
cocktail dress.
If you’re looking up
from the street,
I am right behind
the left breast,
shameless as a blood fluke.
When the sun strikes it
at 3:00 in the afternoon,
the room fills
with evening
& I raise the window
to listen to it
crackle & hum.

Thus it was that the fourth major draft moved into the blog post and settled in after I evicted its predecessor. It seems like a responsible, dues-paying tenant, but you never know. I’ve duplicated it here in case I do end up making further adjustments.

“Cocktail Dress” is neither the best nor the worst poem I’ve ever written. There’s a grain or two of authentic insight there, I think, and the language is O.K. The main thing that’s different here is in fact the process behind it, which I have outlined in such excruciating detail partly for my own future reference.

I’ve been writing poems since the age of seven. I’m 43 now, and up until about six years ago I did write almost every poem in just this kind of laborious manner with multiple, often quite different drafts. Learning to use a word processor and slowly weaning myself off pen and paper changed things a bit, as I’ve said before, but not nearly as much as starting this blog did. In general, I think blogging has had a very beneficial effect on my writing by forcing me to write something every day — I’ve always been an exhibitionist, albeit a sometimes shy one, so blogging was a perfect fit.

But whatever happened to revision? I’ve been telling myself that I don’t do it much anymore because I don’t have to: writing in quantity for an online audience has led to a maturation of my technique. But has it really? I’ve also been known to say that the professional poets go overboard in their perfectionism, and that while we don’t have to adopt the sloppy “first draft, best draft” approach of the Beats, obsession with unobtainable perfection seems unhealthy and counterproductive. But maybe that’s just a convenient excuse to cover my natural laziness. The fact is, it’s always more exciting to generate new content than to fuss around with something I wrote last week or last year.

What scares me is that I almost published that first draft and moved on without exploring the images and ideas in any real depth. And then when I dropped the too-easy ending, I flailed about for many hours, and even posted a draft I wasn’t terribly satisfied with. Maybe it’s time I re-think the way I write poems.

27 Comments


  1. What kind of person would email you saying they didn’t like something in your poem? Seriously.

    I love this and am stealing it for my site’s random quote generator:

    “A cocktail dress achieves its effect through elegant abbreviation; shouldn’t the poem do the same?”

    Reply

    1. What kind of person? A true friend in poetry, that’s what kind.

      Steal away. I aspire to randomness, you know.

      Reply

  2. Also, Tate would not put “a flag for an imaginary, allegorical country” in one of his poems, at least not in the way that Collins might.

    Reply

      1. Tate-ics, to be precise. Since the suffix in alcoholic is “-ic,” not “-aholic.”

        Reply


  3. Thanks for this light on your revision process. When I wrote poems, those first drafts were always like being on an automatic pilot in a way — it was the revision that required the most “creative” effort and which, in the end, honed the only “original” element in the work: the authentic voice.

    Reply

    1. Finding what’s authentic — always the kicker. As I think about this more, I believe I really have made quite a lot of progress over the last six years in catching the good stuff on the first or second pass. But that increased facility, combined with my blogger’s impatience to just get a post up, has led me sometimes to cut more corners than I should.

      Reply

  4. Fascinating, Dave – I think we should all do this once in a while. When I go through my own “process” it does reveal patterns and tendencies (weaknessess by any other name) and that’s useful. I agree about the first iteration – the connection to the hawk at the end just didn’t make it for me, but the simplification of ideas over the various revisions definitely made it a stronger poem. I like this, that someone told me from their homiletics class: Q: “How many ideas should a good sermon contain?” a: “At least one.” It’s so tempting to make a poem do more work than it should, I guess.

    Reply

    1. Yes. And I think poets could learn a lot from successful preachers about how to move an audience. If I taught poetry, we’d take field trips to local houses of worship.

      Reply

    1. Oops, it looks likes your comment got cut short. Sorry about that! Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply

  5. Very interesting indeed to follow the poem’s journey and to read the commentary. Whilst there are felicitous bits within the earlier versions, the fourth draft has a substance and a completeness that justifies the work.

    Good to see you out of the woods and into the streets too!

    Reply

    1. Well, if you more urban(e) folk can write the odd pastoral piece, I figure I get to riff about city streets once in a while, right? I’m glad you found this disquisition to be of interest. I was afraid it would come across as terribly self-indulgent.

      Reply

  6. I read this post breathlessly. I loved the insight into your process, and watching this poem move from one incarnation to another. My two cents: “crackle” resounds nicely off “blocked”, “fluke”, and “strikes”, and “hum” retains the taut, erotic tension. I can’t wait for the epic blood fluke poem…

    Reply

    1. I do mean to write something about blood flukes — research is another thing I haven’t done as much of since I started blogging, but I’ll need to do a bit of reading before I can write convincingly about parasistes. Anyway, thanks for the comment. I’ve found that alliteration and assonance often work best when I don’t think too much about them, though of course it’s always fun to stand back afterwards and see what’s working and why.

      Reply

  7. I love it when poets get metacognitive (how’s that for pedagese?): I learn more about writing (and especially revising) poetry from reading a poet’s reflections on writing a poem than I do from reading criticism. This post should be in the next edition of Poem, Revised: 54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions (a book filled with excellent essays, each one by a poet on how she wrote and revised a single poem).

    I wrote a post like this last year, tracking a poem’s changes. I started writing that post in an effort to garner my poem a few second reads: the revisions were too subtle for a casual blog reader to notice, and, I figured, who would read my poem again just because I reposted it two days later with “New! Improved!” in the title? But then it became one of the most satisfying posts I had written in weeks.

    I like how Dick Jones gives his poems fresh reads by revising them slowly over time. (I don’t write enough poetry, and I don’t have the patience, for that.)

    I’ve always thought that somebody’s blogging software might be designed around a poem’s need for feedback and subsequent drafts, but I haven’t run across it yet.

    Reply

    1. “Metacognitive” is a great word, Peter, and thanks for the mention of that book — I hadn’t heard of it.

      Ordinarily, my approach with posting a revision is to overwrite the original post with it, but that does short-change readers — especially those who’ve already left comments responding to an earlier draft. Also, the practice is somewhat controversial among bloggers, many of whom feel that any change in a published post should be restricted to a duly labled update. It would be great of blog posts were like wiki pages, with a “history” tab linking to earlier versions, and since WordPress already saves multiple versions of each post, they’re already in the database and could probably be summoned up with some fancy code and theme hacks. It would probably slow down site load times considerably, though — you’d have to use a caching plugin.

      Reply

  8. this is fascinating; i love revision. i love revision even more than first drafts, i think.

    and i’m so easy; i liked all your versions, though i like the last one best. i love 3 p.m. feeling like evening.

    Reply

    1. Hi Laurie – Thanks for your kind words. Revision is kind of fun, I guess. I think I revise a lot in my head, which might be why writing first drafts is generally so intense for me.

      Reply

      1. I love your inner debate, found in your next-to-last paragraph, about first drafts and revisions. I go through the same questions about my writing.

        I like the way the debate plays out in your approach to revising “Cocktail Dress.” Anyone who finds reason to give up fine lines like this:

        I’ve seen much too much
        of that too little.

        is serious about revision, I say.

        Reply

        1. Thanks, Peter. You’re right — I don’t have too hard a time jettisoning good lines that don’t fit a poem. And usually I don’t save them in any way, either. I just figure there’s more where that came from.

          Reply

  9. wow! what a thought process that went into this writing–and each step was, in my opinion, an excellent poem. although i like very much your “final” version, the second-to-last one has a lot of impact, it’s an excellent poem. reading this made me appreciate poetry again…it’s been a while..

    Reply

    1. Hearing that something I’ve written has made someone take a renewed interest in poetry is just about the most gratifying feedback I can get (though I’m glad you like the poems, too). Thank you.

      Reply

  10. Thanks for including this. It’s helpful to see something of your process, even after the fact. I’m constantly learning things from the poets who post at rwp. My training is forty years rusty.
    I usually revise, when I do, at the computer, and don’t hang onto the drafts and am wondering how to change that. When a version is gone, so is its potential as a fresh beginning. (you wonder how plant breeders can throw away all but one or two lines from every generation’s sports and oddities)

    Reply

    1. Hi Barbara – Glad you found this helpful. I too rarely save drafts since weaning myself off pen and paper some ten years ago, but for this poem I did, for some reason — and I’m glad, because it would’ve been hard to write the post otherwise! I just added a number to the end of file name each time I saved. But since I’m using WordPress, older edits of a page are automatically saved, as well, and I can revert to an earlier version at any time.

      Reply

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